The bulk of tonight’s episode is given over to John Constantine restoring the soul of Sara Lance. To put that in the most cynical possible terms, that means Arrow crosses over with a canceled show from another network, passing off its erstwhile star as Oliver’s latest old yet previously unmentioned friend, all to do the narrative dirty work of undoing a character’s death just in time for her to go off and star on another show entirely, the upcoming spin-off Legends Of Tomorrow. All of which is to say, the Hellblazer bit of “Haunted” has no business working as well as it does. Yet, by and large, it’s John Constantine who elevates the otherwise sputtering Arrow episode that he drops in on. Much of that has to do with the basic reason the Arrow creative team went to the trouble of bringing the character onto the show in the first place: Matt Ryan is pretty damn fantastic as Constantine, and any excuse to give him another episode’s worth of screentime after NBC canceled his show is worth embracing. And despite behind-the-scenes claims that his appearance was a one-time-only arrangement, the on-screen farewells between Oliver and Constantine leave it about as open as the show possibly could for a return somewhere down the line.
Constantine’s introduction represents just about the best use we’ve yet seen of the flashback format. I haven’t much discussed the flashbacks, because they just feel superfluous to our understanding of Oliver’s journey at this point, but they have been considerably better this year now that the show has returned to the island. The idea of using Constantine in the flashbacks is inspired, in that it allows the show to bring him early on with minimal introductions, then have him enter the present-day story—relatively late in the game, it turns out—once it makes sense to do so organically. There’s always going to be a certain degree of contrivance in Oliver electing to call up his old buddy John Constantine, particularly since there’s not necessarily a good in-universe reason he wouldn’t have reached out to John with any of his previous mystical problems. But the flashbacks provide plenty of space for the main attraction of the episode, which is to see Matt Ryan and Stephen Amell play off each other, while clearing the way for a more streamlined appearance once Constantine shows up in Star City.
For all Arrow’s close relationship with The Flash, this is arguably the show’s first true crossover, in as much as this is the show bringing an established but previously unknown character into its world, though it’s less with the canceled show—there’s one line in passing about the last time Constantine restored a soul that I’m pretty sure is a reference to the series, but that’s about it—as it is just an opportunity to have a magic-wielding DC Comics character show up played by an actor already established as ideal for the role. Ryan brings an outsize presence to Arrow, as befits a character who was once the star of his own show, but “Haunted” generally hits the right balance in how it uses him. He and Oliver one-up each other without being weirdly competitive about it, and there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie, if not exactly outright friendship, that Ryan and Amell convey. If this is indeed the last hurrah for Ryan’s John Constantine, then it’s a pretty good way to go out, with him getting to play the back-scratching joker, the sword-wielding warrior, and the generally incorrigible flirt.
Still, Constantine isn’t really the focus of “Haunted.” Laurel is, and that’s where the episode runs into trouble. What drives so much of the conflict between Laurel and Oliver is his inability to see her as an equal. On a meta level, what we’re really talking about here is the fact that Oliver tends to act like he’s the protagonist of a superhero TV show, which isn’t exactly surprising, all things considered. It makes sense that he consistently acts like his journey and his needs are more important than Laurel’s, because the entire universe in which he exists is set up to validate that belief. The supporting cast long since divided itself into two groups, the supporting characters and the secondary protagonists. The distinctions here aren’t cut and dry, and a lot of it has to do with how much effort the show puts into developing a given character’s emotional arcs and foregrounding their journeys as something we ought to invest in.
Felicity, for instance, is the show’s breakout character, and she’s more than capable of leading her own ongoing (crossover-building) subplots and the occasional spotlight episode, but she’s still fundamentally the comic relief and emotional support for Oliver. Her feelings matter, but her wisecracks tend to matter more on an episode-by-episode basis. Thea, on the other hand, has been developed to the point where her emotional complexity rivals that of her brother; I don’t think Arrow could realistically continue without Stephen Amell, but the only plausible way forward probably would be to try to slide Thea into the main role, and that’s basically the litmus test we’re talking about here. A lot of the credit there has to go to Willa Holland, who has grown into her role just as much as her onscreen brother has. Consider their sparring scene, in which Thea responds to Oliver’s decision to take the new campaign manager’s advice and distance himself from Laurel. That exchange is really just thematic ballast, a necessary bit of setup to help contextualize the episode’s larger exploration of Oliver and Laurel’s relationship, and it requires Thea to reverse course from being the person who brought in Alex in the first place. Yet Holland anchors Thea’s changing perspective in multiple recognizable emotions, conveying Thea’s shift as something more than just narrative confusion.
Laurel, on the other hand … well. Her character can work in the right situations, and the last several episodes have established that Katie Cassidy is at her best when trading one-liners and being part of the vigilante team—when she’s a supporting character, in other words. Maybe there was a way for Laurel to be something more, but neither the creative team nor Cassidy ever hit upon a compelling way to deepen her character. If this episode were about how Oliver took Thea or Diggle for granted, I could totally see Laurel working well as the character who appeals to her and Oliver’s long shared history to set him straight. But as someone who has to stand up to Oliver and assert her own importance as an equal? That should work, but that just isn’t who this Laurel is, and it makes so much of “Haunted” hard to buy into when she’s meant to be the emotional crux of the proceedings.
She just isn’t a strong enough character for her perspective—that she had to protect Sara, and Oliver would not have been the ally she needed—to read as anything as but petulance, and even little things like her repeatedly running after the sound of Sara’s shrieking soul plays as gullibility instead of heroic caring. What offsets this, beyond the general fun of John Constantine showing up, is Stephen Amell’s work as Oliver. The great success of this season has been the show modulating Oliver’s character so that he’s no longer the dour, judgmental jerk we so often saw in past years. He’s still going to have his dictatorial moments, yet he much more quickly realizes how he has erred. There’s a Laurel story in “Haunted” that never comes off, but Amell makes the episode work as the story of Oliver taking tangible steps to regain Laurel’s trust. What he says to Thea at the end about how he’s sorry she couldn’t trust him is indicative of where the character now is. He’s not perfect, but he’s not tortured by his imperfection, and he understands how he needs to improve. Arrow is never going to be as much unbridled fun as The Flash, but it’s found a way to be positive, even as it navigates the darkness.
There are a few other funky things going on in “Haunted”: Oliver and Laurel’s eventual rescue of Sara’s soul while Constantine holds off the demonic spirit feels all a little too humdrum, as they appear to take forever just to stand on top of the Lazarus pit. The direction of Sara’s attack on the hospital-bound Thea appears meant to show the latter’s dazed perspective, but it again plays a little sluggish. And, perhaps inevitably, there’s a fraction too much of the main cast and the visiting star swapping odd compliments, mostly about how attractive everyone is. (Though, yes, Thea is absolutely correct in declaring Ryan’s Constantine a very specific kind of yummy. I’m not disputing the accuracy of that one bit.) And it’s taken this season five whole episodes to establish that Ray Palmer is alive—and that Curtis Holt is an Olympic decathlete, because he’s pretty terrific like that—when that could probably have been done in three episodes, tops.
But honestly, whatever: It’s John Constantine, people! The cross-network, post-cancellation crossover is a rare enough thing that it feels churlish to be too critical of “Haunted,” for all its faltering elements. Honestly, so much of what doesn’t work here in terms of Laurel’s story is likely a direct result of the show trying to justify bringing in Constantine. Sara’s resurrection has to matter, and logically the person to whom it matters most is her sister (and her dad, but Detective Lance is never a problem). On balance, it’s worth putting up with some misfiring melodrama if it allows for an appearance from one of the wider DC Universe’s most iconic characters, particularly when played by someone so ideally suited for the role. Still, I’ll admit I’m holding out hope the show can find a way to bring John Constantine back for another, better episode somewhere down the line.
- There was enough else going on here that I didn’t discuss the subplot with Diggle, Darhk, and Detective Lance, also known as “The Adults’ Table.” Neal McDonough remains just ridiculously fun as Darhk, playing his character as both breezily human and nigh omnipotent, while the revelation that Diggle’s brother was mixed up in the Afghanistan drug trade is eminently plausible while also offering some much-needed clarity to this long-simmering little mystery. Good stuff all around, basically.
- Constantine is pretty much impossible to find online these days, as far as I can work out, so I was only able to watch the first episode in preparation for this. Like “Haunted,” it’s far from a perfect hour of television, but Matt Ryan really is perfect as Constantine from the word go. So some things don’t change, I guess.
- I already alluded to this, but seriously: There’s awkward, unrealistic exposition, and then there’s the random tech guy revealing he was a bronze medalist decathlete at the Beijing Olympics. I mean, I don’t mind the line, in that it makes it officially just a matter of time before Curtis becomes Mr. Terrific, but still … not the show’s most artful moment.
- That’s Enlisted and Suburgatory’s Parker Young as campaign manager Alex Davis. Maybe it’s because he was a network lead not so long ago, but I would kind of assume he could be doing more than some random nondescript guest part on Arrow, so maybe there’s more in store for him? Or maybe The CW just needed to hit its quota of random hunks in bit parts, and it splurged a little this week.